Washington is not broken. The system of government that has served the country since the Constitution was adopted is intact.
“The system is perfectly capable of law making and regulation,” says Ray Starling, currently general counsel to the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce and former chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
Starling, speaking at the 65th annual meeting of the Southern Crop Production Association, Nov. 11, in Charleston, S.C., said the assumption that “we need to make fundamental changes” in Washington misses the mark.
“The system works, but only if we come together and agree to get things done,” he said.
He says agricultural labor, one of the most important policy issues in the country, is a case in point. “We can’t even agree on what the priorities are.”
It’s that inability of legislators to agree on policy that perpetuates the gridlock in Congress, Starling said in a lengthy but riveting, sometimes rambling, and often humorous speech that urged ag industry representatives, particularly farmers, to stay involved in politics.
A peculiarity of Washington, he says, makes involvement crucial.
Itinerants run government
“Policymaking in Washington is run by itinerants. People come and go. Overall, 23- and 24-year olds are running the country. They lack historical perspective, so our job is to educate them and to be patient with them.
“That’s why you have to stay in the game and invest in building relationships. Some will be there for decades, some for years and some only for a few months.
“We have a lot of new players in ag policy who were not there 10 or 20 years ago. It is important that you go to their offices and talk.”
Success, he says, requires a unified front. “No one person, party or organization can negotiate Washington. It takes unity to get things done.”
Divisions, even in ag
Divisiveness frustrates progress. “Ag policymakers generally try to work together,” Starling says. But divisions exist even under the broad umbrella of farm policy: big farms versus small; crop versus crop; conventional versus organic; and region versus region.
“So, I can’t overstate the importance of you going to Washington. That’s your role and if you don’t accept it, rest assured, someone else will. Someone else will talk to that 23-year old staffer.”
Starling says the ag industry also must rebuff falsehoods about agriculture. “We are in the misinformation age,” he says. “We see persistent false statements.”
He attributes much of the persistence to social media and continuous bombardment of information, or misinformation. He says agriculture must use social media to combat the misrepresentation of the industry.
A saving grace, he adds, is the farmer. Surveys by the Center for Food Integrity show “the one person the public trusts is the farmer. So, farmers must make the trek to Washington. If you are not willing, you miss an opportunity.”
He says in any group of visitors seeking an audience with a legislator, the farmer will be the one elected officials want to talk to.
“New products will not move off the shelves if you can’t get the policy issues done.”
Starling pointed to changes in trade policy initiated by the Trump administration. He offers what he calls an over-simplified explanation of U.S. trade policy for the past 40 or 50 years.
“The United States served as an acolyte, a leader into developing a worldwide rules-based system. We bring along others as best we can and be hopeful that our wins outnumber our losses.
“That has generally, and certainly for agriculture, worked pretty darn good. In the meantime, our productivity increased, and we have more of everything than we can possibly consume, particularly on the agriculture front.
“So, we seek to sell it around the world and sell it in places that haven't necessarily agreed to reciprocity.”
President Trump, Starling says, balked at the notion that the U.S. play by the rules and others do not.
“We have let intermittent customers continue to access our models, not necessarily in agriculture, but in other areas.”
He says the administration’s actions seek to change the position to one that protects U.S. interests.
“There is room for debate here, whether that should be the right way to go,” he says, but he adds that is the direction the administration has chosen.
“For now,” Starling admits, “U.S. agriculture, particularly farmers, are punching above their weight,” in the trade dispute.
Starling says litigation also threatens agriculture. “Litigation is not about money or social injustice,” he said. “An American elite uses food policy as a mark of social distinction.”
He also envisions a future when regulatory agencies play even more prominent roles in agriculture policy. “Going forward, in the next 20 to 30 years, the FDA and the EPA will be more important than the USDA.”
He says no “easy buttons” exist in Washington policymaking.
And, even though much of the policy is ushered through Congress by young people “who never used a typewriter, don't know what a bag phone is, have no personal recollection of 911, did not see the Challenger shuttle explosion and probably think Gorbachev is a new brand of wings down in Trader Joe’s, Washington, D.C., is just people doing the best they can.”